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Self Reflection through Initial and Final Prompts

Incorporating this into a class takes low effort and brings moderate rewards.

A lot of the time we ask students what they know about a topic, and we may even have them discuss it with their classmates and share out their thoughts. The key is capturing what students know prior to starting a new topic. Students don't enter as blank slates, so acknowledging what they already know (whether it is correct or incorrect) is important to help prime the pump for new information and prepare us to know where to address problems and from what foundation we can build. I find this activity helps me to gauge where my students are for each class and what background experiences are guiding their thinking process.

Starting a Lesson: Initial Prompts

For every new topic, I ask students to write down their initial reflection on the topic by asking a question about the topic. After students have finished answering the question(s) posed, I ask them to share their thoughts with their neighbor(s). I then call on students randomly as pairs to share what they were discussing (basically, a think-pair-share). For each response, I summarize their ideas on the board and I use this as a starting point to use their language to translate to the more complex language of the discipline. For example:

  • What do you think is the difference between weathering and erosion? What are some ways that rocks break down?

I try to phrase the question as one that is low threat, for example, what do you think is the difference between weathering and erosion (rather than what is the difference...). This phrasing provides an entry point that is less threatening because it's what they think rather than what is). Students typically confuse weathering & erosion, so they have descriptors that match with the terms, but misuse the terms. I write their responses without using the terms weathering and erosion and then label each set of responses after they're done sharing out.

  • What do you think of with the word, "mineral"?

Students commonly share out their thoughts about mineral water, vitamins and minerals, what rocks are made of, and makeup. These end up being points of reference for the official definition as well as how and why these terms are used in every day language.

Ending a Lesson: Final Prompts

At the end of every lesson, I ask students to go back to their initial reflection and determine how their ideas have changed. These questions can be specific or general, as in the examples below:

  • What would you change about the volcano you drew in the initial reflection to make the drawing more accurate?
  • A generic "KWLH": what did you already Know about this topic, What did you learn about this topic, What do you still want to Learn more about, and what Helped you to learn about this topic?
    • For this particular example, I often have students then share with each other what they still want to learn and/or what helped them to learn. They learn from each other about strategies for success AND the premise is set that learning never ends, even if the topic in class does.

Why is this type of reflection effective?

  • Research has shown that the most effective practice for learning content is to promote retrieval practice: in this case, students write down what they learned shortly after they have learned it. Asking students to write what they learned helps them record these ideas while they are still fresh in their mind.
  • Helping students to become more reflective as learners helps them learn how to learn. By having them acknowledge they have learned something from what they thought they already knew is critical to helping them recognize that they are learning new content, that they are building on existing knowledge and more importantly, that some of their prior understanding may have been wrong.
  • Asking students what they still want to know more about provides us with information about what they still do not understood. It also gets students to acknowledge that knowledge acquisition is never done, helping to reinforce the idea that learning is an ongoing venture.
  • Asking students to identify what helped them as learners gets them to think about what is helping them to learn—the true metacognitive component of this activity. If you find that strategies are missing, you can provide feedback on effective strategies for all students to employ. Research has shown that lower-performing students won't use effective self-regulated learning strategies unless they're provided information on how to do so.


  • I use this activity (initial and final reflection) during my scheduled class times. This part of the reflection could be done out of class, either due electronically the day of the class itself or the following day, but the longer they wait, the more they will forget.
  • It's key to let students know WHY you're asking them to do this—it helps with buy-in when they know you are doing something that will ultimately help them learn more and develop more effective learning strategies.
  • I grade their reflections when they hand in their notebooks (see next page), but others might want to use a "ticket out" kind of approach, having students hand them in before they leave for the day or use a digital form to post within 24 hours of class time.
  • I grade the reflections as either complete or not complete rather than grading on the quality of their responses. I provide feedback about how to improve, but in order to assure students can be honest, it's generally best that the responses not be judged based on quality—because responses can require subjectivity, they may know how to use the language more effectively rather than really having been more reflective.